Editor’s Note: This month, MIT Open Learning’s Peter B. Kaufman has published The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge, a book that takes a historical look at the powerful forces that have purposely crippled our efforts to share knowledge widely and freely. His new work also maps out what we can do about it. In the coming days, Peter will be making his book available through Open Culture by publishing three short essays along with links to corresponding sections of his book. Today, you can find his short essay “The Monsterverse” below, and meanwhile read/download the first chapter of his book here. You can purchase the entire book online.
The Monsterverse – what exactly is it? Like Sauron and his minions from Mordor in The Lord of the Rings, like Sheev Palpatine and the armies of the Galactic empire from Star Wars, like Lord Voldemort and his henchmen the Death Eaters in Harry Potter, it’s the collective force of evil, one that strives to shut down human progress, freedom, justice, the spread of knowledge –the dissemination of (let us just say it) open culture. It’s the subject of the first chapter of my book, The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge – and its incarnations have been with us for thousands of years.
In 1536, which is when the book begins, it found its embodiment in Jacobus Latomus, who oversaw the trial and execution – by strangling and burning at the stake – of a translator and a priest named William Tyndale. Latomus, who himself was overseen by Thomas More, who himself was overseen by Henry VIII (with Pope Clement VII in a supporting role), choreographed Tyndale’s formal degradation, such that a couple dozen apostolic inquisitors and theologians, university rectors and faculty, lawyers and privy councilors – “heresy-hunters,” as his biographer calls them – led him out of his prison cell in public and in his priestly raiment to a high platform outdoors where oils of anointment were scraped symbolically from his hands, the bread and wine of the Eucharist situated next to him and then just as quickly removed, and then his vestments “ceremonially stripped away,” so that he would find himself, and all would see him as, no longer a priest. Death came next. This scholar and polymath to whom, it is now known, we owe as much as we owe William Shakespeare for our language, this lone man sought and slain by church and king and holy Roman emperor – his initial strangling did not go well, so that when he was subsequently lit on fire, and the flames first lapped at his feet and up his legs, lashed tight to the stake, he came to, and, while burning alive in front of the crowd of religious leaders and so-called justices (some seventeen trial commissioners) who had so summarily sent Tyndale to his death and gathered to watch it, live, he cried out, less to the crowd, it would seem, than to Another: “Lord! Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes!”
What did Tyndale do? He believed that the structure of communication during his time was broken and unfair, and with a core, unwavering focus, he sought to make it so that the main body of knowledge in his day could be accessed and then shared again by every man alive. He engaged in an unparalleled act of coding (not for nothing do we speak of computer programming “languages”), working through the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic of the Bible’s Old, then New, Testaments to bring all of its good books – from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22—into English for everyday readers. He is reported to have said, in response to a question from a priest who had challenged his work, a priest who read the Bible only in Latin: “I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.” And he worked with the distribution technologies of his time – the YouTubes, websites, and Twitters back then – by connecting personally with book designers, paper suppliers, printers, boat captains, and horsemen across sixteenth-century Europe to bring the knowledge and the book that contained it into the hands of the people.
It wasn’t easy. In Tyndale’s time, popes and kings had decreed, out of concern for keeping their power, that the Bible could exist and be read and distributed “only in the assembly of Latin translations” that had been completed by the monk Saint Jerome in approximately 400 CE. The penalties for challenging the law were among the most severe imaginable, for such violations represented a panoply of civil transgressions and an entire complexity of heresies. In taking on the church and the king – in his effort simply and solely to translate and then distribute the Bible in English – Tyndale confronted “the greatest power[s] in the Western world.” As he “was translating and printing his New Testament in Worms,” his leading biographer reminds us, “a young man in Norwich was burned alive for the crime of owning a piece of paper on which was written the Lord’s Prayer in English.” The Bible had been inaccessible in Latin for a thousand years, this biographer writes, and “to translate it for the people became heresy, punishable by a solitary lingering death as a heretic; or, as had happened to the Cathars in southern France, or the Hussites in Bohemia and Lollards in England, official and bloody attempts to exterminate the species.”
Yuckadoo, the Monsterverse, but very much still with us. The strangleholds are real. And Tyndale’s successors in the fight to free knowledge include many freedom fighters and revolutionaries – going up against the forces that seek to constrain our growth as a society. Were Tyndale alive today, he would wonder about the state of copyright law and its overreach; the pervasive estate of surveillance capitalism; the sweeping powers of government to see and interfere in our communication. And he would wonder why the seemingly progressive forces on the side of freedom today – universities, museums, libraries, archives – don’t fight more against information oppression. Tyndale would recognize that the health pandemic, the economic crisis, the political violence we face today, are all the result of an information disorder, one that relies on squelching knowledge and promoting the darkest forms of ignorance for its success. How we come to grips with that challenge is the number-one question for our time. Discovering new paths to defeating it – overcoming the Dark Lords, destroying the Horcruxes, finally harnessing the Force – is the subject of the next two articles, and of the rest of the book.
Peter B. Kaufman works at MIT Open Learning and is the author of The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge. This is the first of three articles.